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Penn medicine has conducted significant research on the relationship between Google searches and visits to the emergency department. (File Photo)

A Penn Medicine study has found that patients' Google searches of health-related concerns double in the week before they visit an emergency room. 

The study, published Feb. 20 in BMJ Open, was led by Jeremy Asch, an innovation strategist at the Penn Medicine Center for Digital Health. The researchers studied the medical histories and health records of more than 100 emergency-department patients. They found that more than half of these patients searched for symptoms and diseases directly related to their emergency room visit, and 15 percent searched for logistical information such as the location of the emergency department.

Asch told Penn Medicine News that the study's original goal was to learn whether patients would be willing to share online search data with medical providers to help improve care. He said the results show patients are "fairly willing" to share this information: about half of the patients with Google accounts agreed to share their search histories when approached by the researchers.  

The study of online search histories revealed gaps in patients' understanding of what doctors tell them. One patient in the study, after being told she was diagnosed with a “walnut-sized fibrous tumor,” later searched "How big is a walnut?" and "What is a fibrous tumor?" Asch said understanding patients' confusion can help doctors learn to communicate information more effectively. 

Center for Digital Health Director and Penn Medicine Associate Vice President Raina Merchant, Center for Digital Health Assistant Director Elissa Klinger, Center for Digital Health Research Assistant Coordinator Justine Marks, Center for Health Care Innovation Executive Director David Asch, and Norah Sadek were also involved in the study. 

Hidden search histories provide more information than public social media posts because they reveal what patients are too embarrassed to ask, Merchant told Penn Medicine.

"Rather than sending patients to ‘Dr. Google,’ we wonder whether we can provide more useful information in their appointments based on what they really care about,” she added.

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